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Daria Kulesh Daria Kulesh
Album: Vasilisa EP
Label: self Released
Tracks: 8

Really excited to receive a new Daria Kulesh EP. There are very few musicians I know that excel in art as well as music. Annie Haslem from Renaissance and Dylan are the only others that spring to mind. Multi-talented, multi-lingual, singer songwriter Daria is also a superb artist, and if you pre-order an EP from her, the resultant cover is an individually hand drawn, unique, work of art in its own right.Superb.

Just two years ago, before the release of Kara’s second album “Some Other Shore”, the band members were worried about including a song that Daria had translated from Ivan Vasiliev’s original “Tzyganskaya Vengerka” on the grounds that the title was unpronounceable. A direct translation is “Hungarian Gypsy”, but the song was already known in the West under the title “Two Guitars” – which Kara considered as irrelevant as it is not about two guitars, nor is it played by two guitars. They eventually settled on the title “Misery and Vodka”.

Since then Daria has released her second solo album to huge international success, to the extent where she can fill venues in London, Russia and especially Ingushetia, where she has become a hero and has been invited to perform to the Prime Minister. She now has so much confidence in the integrity of her audience that she is not only no longer afraid to give a song its Russian name, she has written the title “Vasilisa” on the cover of her EP in Cyrillic characters: “????????”.

I think it was quite a brave thing to do, to release an EP of largely foreign songs, with the title in Russian, but the fact that the entire special edition run of the record has sold out before the release date shows that just how amazingly good Daria is. (Don’t worry, though. You can still buy the standard EP, without the hand-crafted cover).

There is a common theme throughout this EP: Daria’s childhood, growing up in Russia. The title track Vasilisa, was inspired by a lavishly illustrated book of myths and legends that Daria had as a child. The same book has inspired several other Daria songs, including Kara’s “Mermaid’s Lament”. Do not fear, though. This is not a childish collection. In fact I think I can safely say that this is the most cultured album I own.

I am hugely embarrassed to admit that until I heard Daria perform “Vasilisa” live, I had never heard of the story. I have always had a fascination for myths and legends, and how one story has roots in earlier stories from other cultures (the close similarities with the story of Noah and the early legend of Gilgamesh, for example). I have known of one of the major characters in the story, Baba Yaga, for all of my adult life, and somehow never bothered to dig any deeper. In addition, I have always loved Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite” (Prog rock group Yes use it as the introduction to their concerts) but never thought to find out what the story behind the firebird was. Although not directly related to this particular part of Vasilisa’s story, there are large links from the firebird to the mythology behind the tale retold in Daria’s new single.

I first came across Baba Yaga whilst listening to ELP’s “Pictures at An Exhibition”, based on Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite from 1874 which celebrated paintings by Viktor Hartmann. One of the paintings was “The Hut On Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”. Baba Yaga was a character from Slavic legends, generally depicted as a witch, (though sometimes in some stories she is three sisters all with the same name), who lived in a hut in a wood, the hut being held aloft on the legs of giant hens. Discovering that the Hartmann painting was not actually of the hut, but of a clock fashioned in the style of the hut was all the research I had previously done.

The part of Vasilisa’s tale as told in Daria’s song, seems to have been a fore runner of our tale of Cinderella, (or perhaps both stories grew from some long forgotten common myth). On her death bed, Vasilisa’s mother bequeathed her a magic doll. Her father remarried, thus introducing a wicked step mother and evil sisters to the family who were jealous of Vasilisa’s skills as a dancer and a seamstress, so set Vasilisa difficult and dangerous tasks, one of which was to get light from Baba Yaga: a witch who ate visitors who came to her house (perhaps related to the tale of Hansel and Gretel?). The doll protected Vasilisa from the witch who then had to give Vasilisa the light she required. The light however turned out to be a weapon, which turned the step mother and sisters to ashes. The king then heard of Vasilisa’s skills as a dressmaker, married her and she lived happily ever after.

There is another stranger tale of Vasilisa, in which the King’s archer found a feather from the firebird, gave it to the King who demanded the archer catch the whole bird. Having done so the King then demanded that the archer went and kidnapped Princess Vasilisa. The archer found Vasilisa, drugged her and brought her back to the palace. Vasilisa then demanded that the archer travel to the bottom of the sea to find her wedding dress, and then demanded that the archer was boiled alive before she would marry the King. The archer’s horse just happened to be magic, and protected the archer whilst he was immersed in the boiling water, and when the archer emerged he was younger and more beautiful. Seeing this, the King jumped in, and died. As a result, the archer became King, married Princess Vasilisa and once again they lived happily ever after.

There are two versions of Daria’s song on the EP. The full five minute version and a slightly shorter version for radio play. Both feature Jonny Dyer (one of the musicians from her solo album “Long Lost Home”). Jonny is credited with playing bouzouki. I know he has a gorgeous chimera of an instrument with the body of a guitar and the neck of a bouzouki, which he calls a gouzouki, so I suspect it is that that he plays. It blends together really well with the sound of Daria’s Shruti box to give an eerie atmosphere to this track. Deserves huge amounts of radio airplay.

“She Moved Through The Fair” might seem slightly out of place here - its origins are shrouded in some mystery, with both Irish and Scottish ancestry, but it is clearly not Russian There are two reasons I believe for its inclusion here. Next to the Kremlin there was an Irish pub called Rosie O’Grady. Daria, as a teenager, learnt the song as a resident singer at the bar. In addition, like the character in the song, Daria experienced a visitation, from her Grandmother. The event inspired her song “Fata Morgana” from her first album, which led on to the inspiration for the entire second album “Long Lost Home”. Daria’s a capella version of this song, (that I first heard being sung by Sandy Denny, though it dates back much earlier than that) leaves me breathless, not least because as the last notes are still echoing in your head, Marina Osmond’s exquisite piano introduction fades in for the third track, “I Watch The Snow”.

Daria had never intended to include “I Watch The Snow” on this release. The original version was included on “Eternal Child”, but it is a song that features often in her live shows, and Marina, quite rightly, adores it. When they found they still had a few minutes left of studio time, Marina insisted on recording it. The song was dedicated to absent friends, in other words, her family back in Russia. It is basically an air kiss to another continent, carried on the back of a snowflake. Delighted that this version of the song has been recorded as it is so beautifl. Marina’s keyboard playing reminds me of Rick Wakeman’s introduction to Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken”.

The majority of the rest of the songs on the EP are in Russian, (though Daria sings “Those Were The Days” in Russian, French and English). However, don’t feel put off by the fact that you might not understand the lyrics. Most of the songs are pretty well known in the West, Marina’s keyboards enliven the songs with colour, and Daria sings them with such passion that you will be captivated by them whether you’ve heard them before or not.

“Black Eyes”, also called Dark Eyes in the West, has an original Russian title of(Ochi Chernyie). The lyrics were written by a Ukrainian opera singer, in the 1840’s. His name written in non-Cyrillic characters, has been transliterated as, Yevgeniy Pavlovich Grebyonka , Eugen Grebinka and Yevhen Hrebinka. The original score was written by Florian Hermann in 1884, and it was rumoured that no copies had been kept and that the tune was lost, but it appears on Wikipedia that that isn’t true and that the original score is still available. Italian born British composer Adalgiso Ferraris wrote the popular tune in 1910, as sung by Daria. Versions exist by Danny Kaye, Chet Atkins, Al Jolson, Tommy Dorsey, Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong. I have listened on youtube to very many different versions and I can safely say that Daria and Marina’s version is by far the most dramatic and exciting, even the version by the Red Army Choir, though I loved the Django instrumental version.

“Korobeiniki” translates as Peddlers. It is a 19th century Russian folk song apparently describing a Peddler and a girl haggling over his wares as a metaphor for a romance. It is based on an original poem by Nikolai Nekrasov. You might not have ever heard of “Korobeiniki” nor of Nikolai Nekrasov, but I am certain that you will know the tune, as it was adopted by Nintendo as the background theme to Tetris. If you ever played the game and want a trip down memory lane, then this EP is for you.

“Moscow Nights” was originally written as Leningradskie Vechera, Evenings in the suburbs of Leningrad. It was written by Vasily Solovyvo Sedoi and poet Mikhail Matusvsky 1955 but the song was changed to Podmoskovnye Vechera (Evenings in the suburbs of Moscow) at the request of the Soviet Ministry of Culture. If you don’t already know the song, you can draw your own conclusion that it is pretty special, otherwise the Soviet Ministry of Culture would have been happy to leave it six-hundred odd miles away. There’s a Russian radio station called Radio Mayak who apparently use the tune as a time signal played every thirty minutes on Radio Mayak since 1964.I could listen to Daria’s version over and over again, and still enjoy it, but even I would probably baulk at 48 times a day for over fifty years.

I grew up watching Opportunity Knocks, and fell in love, like most school boys did, with Mary Hopkin, and love her even more now that I know that she sang with the band Strawbs. “Those Were The Days” is therefore a favourite of mine. I had no idea that the song was originally Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, which translates as ‘By The Long Road’, until I watched a video on Youtube of Daria playing this at Twickfolk’s 30th anniversary celebration. The music was composed by Boris Fomin and the original Russian lyrics were written by Konstantin Podrevsky. Gene Raskin wrote the English lyrics and copyrighted the original tune. In 1937, Russia imposed a ban on Fomin’s music and he was imprisoned for a year. The reason for his release is shrouded in mystery – one suggestion is that Stalin liked his music and negotiated his release, another is that his accusers themselves had been imprisoned. It does seem a bit rough to end up imprisoned because somebody played a song you wrote and then someone else copyrights it. Really pleased that Daria has included her tri-lingual version on this EP so that the world can become familiar with the original.

When Daria makes a record, she puts her soul into the project and the resultant music draws your soul in as well. After her “Long Lost Home” album release at Cecil Sharp House, I became very proud of my Ingush roots, only to remember a few days later that I was born in Essex and not the Caucasus mountains. After listening to Vasilisa, I began constructing Disney-esque cartoons of the story in my head to the point where I now have actual memories of seeing the film at the cinema as a child. I can’t wait to see what memories her next project creates.

Pete Bradley